Sunday, February 17, 2013

Liberal Zionists Should Support BDS

Readers, this post appeared last week in Open Zion here and was answered by Peter Beinart here. I plan to respond to his response later. 

Liberal Zionists want to end Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza, abolish institutional discrimination between the Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of Israel, and witness the establishment of a Palestinian state that will allow Palestinians to live as a free and secure people in their own homeland. As liberals, they insist on preserving the civil and human rights of both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. These objectives are virtually identical with two of the three aims of the Palestinian BDS National Committee. The sticking point is the third, which is “respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in U.N. resolution 194.”

I don’t agree with Mira Sucharov that an endorsement of the Palestinian right of return is incompatible with the State of Israel having a Jewish character or that such an endorsement will lead to millions of Palestinians returning to their homes and properties. Conjuring up that scenario (which has zero likelihood of coming about) allows Zionists to justify the demographic cap of “only 20 percent Arab” that they consider necessary for the continued existence of a Jewish ethnic state.
Still, I realize that the right of return is a red flag for the vast majority of liberal Zionists, who use it to explain why they won’t endorse the Palestinian BDS movement. So let me argue why I think this is the wrong approach for them to take.
Liberal Zionists have three options, as I see it:
1. They can continue to oppose BDS and support liberal organizations as effective as J Street, shaking their heads at reports in the New York Times about the latest Israeli settlement expansions, and placing their faith in a U.S. administration that has done nothing to stem Israel’s inexorable march toward a state that is Jewish and democratic and apartheid: Jewish for the Palestinian Israelis, democratic for the Jewish Israelis, and apartheid for the Palestinians living under the control of the military and the settlers. They can continue to defer for generations the moral scandal of the Palestinian refugees, a problem created when Israel unilaterally barred their return to their homes, populated its state with Jewish immigrants, and made use of their Palestinian property in defiance of international law and U.N. resolutions (not to mention the Balfour Declaration).
2. Or, publicly eschewing the Palestinian BDS movement, they can practice their own “targeted BDS” or “Zionist BDS,” focusing their efforts on boycotting products produced in the Occupied Territories, like SodaStream and Ahava beauty products, or supporting divestment from companies like Caterpillar that benefit from the Occupation. (Some of them may extend this to Israeli agricultural companies.)
3. Or they can express solidarity with the global BDS movement as a non-violent protest movement emerging from Palestinian civil society, while at the same time making known their reservations about endorsing the right of return. In other words, they can join hands with the global BDS movement in its efforts to end the occupation and institutional discrimination against Palestinians, while agreeing to disagree about the right of return. Two out of three aims is basis enough for joint action.
In a post written three years ago, I tried to persuade liberal Zionists to offer support, if only qualified, to the BDS movement. As I anticipated, my “bridge proposal” was criticized by both sides for conceding too much to the other. The liberal Zionists gave the standard arguments: BDS will harden the Israelis, strengthen the right wing, and hurt the peace camp. Adopting the tactics of the “demonizers” will only make the Israeli left less relevant (if that’s possible). Some called the BDS movement potentially dangerous to Israel. Others called it weak and ineffectual, a minor annoyance. I was told that liberal Zionists can only have influence if they stay within the tribe, ally themselves with “moderate Palestinians” like Salam Fayyad (who has endorsed BDS in the territories) and distance themselves from the Palestinian one-staters. And then there is Eric Alterman’s view that the Palestinians’ “only hope can come by convincing Jewish Israelis that the risks and benefits of peace outweigh the risks and benefits of continued conflict.” That’s going to be a tough sell when Israelis are doing quite well without peace. They have shown that they can handle the occasional intifada, and they know that the benefits of occupation outweigh the risks of ending it—especially when there’s no external pressure to do so.  
Neither segregation in the South nor apartheid in South Africa ended when blacks convinced the majority of whites to end it. Concerted action, including but not limited to boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, were instrumental in convincing a few white people in power that the status quo was untenable. It took an intifada to convince Yitzhak Rabin that the occupation was untenable.
The BDS movement is currently the only game “out of town,” i.e., outside of human rights activism and political organization within Israel and the territories. And it has been partly effective. Israelis, except for the hard-core settlers and the ultra-Orthodox, care deeply about their image. Every cancellation of a concert by a fading rock star, or of a lecture by a protesting academic, is front-page news. The artistic boycott of theaters in the settlements, the European supermarket boycott, the various divestment campaigns—all have tremendous psychological value. We are now at the stage when major Christian denominations, European supermarkets, andTIAA-CREF are contemplating some form of BDS. Even those individuals who boycott shitake mushrooms from Tekoa make a statement.
BDS, in fact, may be the best hope for liberal Zionists who haven’t given in entirely to ethnic loyalties or to a blind faith in an illusory and never ending “peace process” that serves only one side, the powerful one.
Traditional Jews are familiar with the problem of the agunah, the “chained wife” whose husband refuses to divorce her unless it is on his terms. Both sides may have legitimate grievances. But according to Jewish law, the power of divorce lies entirely with the husband; the wife is powerless to effect anything on her own. If the husband refuses until he is able to extort his terms from the other side, Jewish law empowers the court to force him to “voluntarily” divorce his wife. In the old days, recalcitrant husbands would be flogged. Today, communities publicly shame them, and in Israel they are jailed. (Just yesterday my shul rabbi publicly shamed a recalcitrant husband, and community protests have been organized against the offender.)
In the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, both sides have legitimate grievances. But in terms of the power equation, Israel is the recalcitrant husband and the Palestinian people, the agunah. Shame and ostracism are not guaranteed to be effective; like the recalcitrant husband, Israel may indeed dig in. But as an Israeli I have more faith in my country than that. As I wrote above, Israel is acutely sensitive to its public image, and most Israelis want to be part of the community of nations. A broad coalition between Palestinians and Jews, occasionally acting together, occasionally acting in parallel, may be the best hope for allowing the divorce that liberal Zionists feel is important for both sides.
At the very least, by endorsing the BDS movement, albeit with reservations, liberal Zionists will have publicly declared their moral priorities and will have importantly set limits to their ethnic loyalties.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

What's So Wrong with BDS

Readers, this appeared in Open Zion here last week.

Controversial speakers appearing on campus are as American as apple pie. So why are critics riled up about an event organized by the Brooklyn College chapter of Students for Justice for Palestine, where Prof. Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti are explaining and defending the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) movement against Israel?

Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz complains that the event is co-sponsored by the political science department, which is inappropriate for an academic unit, unless it sponsors all sides of a controversial issue. For him the co-sponsorship implies an endorsement of a political view that may have a chilling effect—indeed, an adverse career effect—on opponents of that view within the department.

I can sympathize with the claim that academic units should not co-sponsor events with student groups, although many universities, including Harvard, permit it, and I am not aware that Prof. Dershowitz has spoken out against this practice on other issues besides the Middle East. As the director of a Jewish Studies program that houses Israel Studies, I have instituted a policy against co-sponsorships with student groups (although we occasionally contribute modest sums for refreshments, which is what student groups are often looking for anyway).

But forget the co-sponsorship issue: What if the political science department had on its own initiative invited Butler and Barghouti to explain the aims of the BDS movement to its faculty and students? Prof. Dershowitz doesn’t just object apparently to a department “endorsing” a controversial speaker. He also objects to a department even sponsoring a controversial speaker unless opposing views are presented—an unusual and impossible demand for departments.
I suspect that the real reason for the Brooklyn College brouhaha is the belief among mainstream Israel supporters that those who support BDS belong to the extremist, loony fringe of Israel-haters. Free speech may require that they be allowed to speak on campus when invited by student groups, and, indeed, they appear regularly not only at colleges like Berkeley and San Francisco State, and but also at Penn and Harvard. But a respectable institution should publicly disavow their positions and relegate the event to a room in the crowded Student Union.
The real issue here is not freedom of speech for controversial ideas but rather the presentation of the BDS movement as beyond the pale.
I have written elsewhere about why liberal Zionists should consider supporting the global BDS movement. To the claim that the BDS movement is anti-Israeli I pose the question, “Was the BDS movement in South Africa anti-South African?” For many whites and most Afrikaaners, and the South African government at the time, the answer would have been yes. For them, apartheid was an essential part of the South African regime. Dismantle apartheid, and the country, no matter what its name, would never be the same. Yet it was possible for those who opposed apartheid to contemplate a better place for all South Africans, blacks, whites, and colored. For them the BDS movement against apartheid was not directed against the South African people but against the policies of its government.
The global BDS movement has adopted three goals (rarely mentioned by its critics): ending the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the separation barrier; granting full civil rights and equality to the Arab minority within Israel; and respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in U.N. resolution 194. The three goals correspond to the three main sectors of the Palestinian people today. There is no goal of the abolition of the State of Israel, or even its transformation into one secular democratic state. In fact, those who support BDS against Israel have somewhat similar aims as those who supported BDS in South Africa. Both groups wanted and want to bring about fundamental changes in their respective societies in a non-violent manner.
One can disagree with the desirability or the consequences of some of these goals. Certainly one can disagree about the utility or efficacy of BDS as a tactic. But there is nothing odious or despicable about the goals or the tactic.
Some opponents of BDS will object, “We have no problem with criticism of Israel, as long as it is constructive and recognizes Israel’s legitimate security needs. But BDS aims not only to weaken the state, itself an immoral goal, but also to delegitimize its very existence. Indeed, many who endorse the BDS movement are in favor of replacing the Jewish state with a secular Palestinian state. That’s what places it beyond the pale of respectable discourse at universities, and what makes it deeply offensive to some students, even if it is protected by free speech.”
Arguing in this manner is troubling for two reasons. For one thing, it insinuates that the supporters of BDS hide their real agenda, the destruction of the State of Israel and the subjugation or exile of its Jewish inhabitants, under the cloak of human rights and international law. Second, it reads the desire to see a better regime or regimes for both Israelis and Palestinians as the wish to relegate the Jews to a second-class citizenship in a secular Palestine.
The question at stake here is not whether extreme positions should be allowed to be heard but rather whether BDS or One State advocacy are extreme positions. Prof. Dershowitz opposes the BDS advocate on one extreme and the radical settler zealot on the other. But the settler’s opposite counterpart is not the advocate of BDS, nor even the advocate of one state for Palestinians and Israelis, but rather one who would deny Israeli Jews any place in Palestine—just as the opposite extreme from the white supremacist in South Africa was not those South African blacks who wished to replace the apartheid ethos with the belief that blacks and whites should have equal rights in a shared society. In the Israeli-Palestinan conflict, the “middle” is not the domain of the two-staters but rather of all those who see both sides as entitled to control over their own security, lives and liberty, whatever the political arrangement, one state or two. “Neither to rule, nor to be ruled” as the old socialist Zionist slogan went.
This is why it is important that discussions and debates over BDS go mainstream and are not marginalized by the self-appointed arbiters of the acceptable and the unacceptable. The boundaries of discussion on Israel/Palestine are changing, albeit slowly. The longer the Palestinian people are deprived of their rights, the harder it will be to justify the current boundaries of discourse. The New York Times correctly complains that “the sad truth is that there is more honest discussion about American-Israeli policy in Israel than in this country.” But the terms of reference for such a discussion should not be limited to what is acceptable discourse in Israel. The diverse voices of the Palestinian people and their supporters, not to mention the supporters of the civil rights of both Israelis and Palestinians, should be heard in this country—not just in alternative media but in the public sphere.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

How Jews Should Relate to Palestine

Yesterday I was speaking with a young graduate student in Islamic studies, an orthodox Jew,  who told me that the question arose in one of his courses, "Where is Safed?" to which the professor replied, "In Palestine."

His story reminded me of the one told by the Palestinian-American, Ahmed Moor, who, when telling a fellow undergrad that he and his family  were from Palestine, met with the reaction,  "Palestine doesn't exist."

Well, Palestine, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river, does exist and will continue to exist, even if the State of Israel is recognized by the entire world -- including the Palestinians themselves -- as a legitimate and sovereign state. And the first people to understand this should be the Jews. For Jews have called the same land that the Palestinians call "Palestine" Eretz Yisrael/the Land of Israel, even  when their communities in Palestine were tiny. For  homeland and political sovereignty are two distinct concepts.

For the Palestinians, the State of Israel will always be at best a political entity whose founding ideology was foreign to Palestine, whose founders conquered Palestine and expelled most its inhabitants, and who allowed the remaining inhabitants to remain as second-class citizens under a military government while their lands were taken away. Israeli Jews at best will be legitimated as Jews of Palestine. And there is historical precedent. Poland remained Poland for the Poles, despite disappearing after it was partitioned  by Austria, Prussia, and Russia. I am not referring merely to the Kingdom of Poland, I am referring to the homeland of the Poles, "the sacred landscape," to use Meron Benveniste's term.

People of good will on both sides recognize that their narrative is not shared by the other. But that does not mean that each should be compelled to give up their narrative. As an Israeli Jew, one sympathetic and supportive of the Palestinian cause, I recognize the continuing existence of Palestine, not on some truncated spots of the West Bank and Gaza, but on the entire land of Palestine. LIke Benveniste, I feel saddened by the Israelis who don't know what they have lost by attempting to wipe this Palestine off the map. Fortunately, that attempt is doomed to fail, as long as Palestine continues to be remembered.

From a purely visceral standpoint, it is sometimes difficult for me to hear references to Palestine, because I was raised to believe that anybody who talked about "Palestine" wanted to drive my people into the sea. That, of course, is rubbish. I don't thing it is wrong or not politicallly correct to talk about Eretz Yisrael, or to treat it as the promised land of the Jews. That has nothing to do with the regime that governs the Holy Land.

As a religious Jew, I believe that the Jew qua Jew has three homes: the state of which she is a citizen; the Jewish community of which she is a participant, and the land of Israel. Jews do not need political sovereignty in an exclusivist ethnic state in order to feel at home in that land. In fact, increasingly I am feeling less at home in the State of Israel, then in the United States.

But I do feel at home in my home in Jerusalem in Eretz Yisrael, and I would like to be welcomed by Palestinians as a Jews, and, yes, as an Israeli, living in Palestine. In fact, I would like both homelands to be shared homelands.

Recognizing the State of Israel, and recognizing the rights of Israeli citizens of that state, does not mean -- should not mean -- relinquishing the notion that the State of Israel occupies part of the historic homeland of the Palestinians. As an orthodox Jew I believe that the West Bank is part of Eretz Yisrael, as is southern Lebanon and parts of Syria and Jordan.But that means nothing with regard to the question of the best political regime(s) for Eretz Yisrael and Palestine.

As for the Zionists, despite all their efforts to wipe all traces of Palestine off the map, and to replace it with the State of Israel, they were successful only in getting rid of mandatory Palestine. Palestine as homeland remains as long as the Palestinians and others honor it in their collective memory.